Germans are whizzes at moving people around the country, and its public transport network is one of the best in Europe. There are many methods of transport for traveling, but the best ways of getting around Germany are by train and by car.
Flying in Germany is only useful for longer distances. Unless you’re flying from one end of the country to the other, say Berlin to Munich or Hamburg to Munich, planes are only marginally quicker than trains once you factor in the time it takes to get to and from airports. The German government is also starting to encourage travelers to skip short-haul flights in favor of the train. Most large and many smaller German cities have their own airports, and numerous carriers operate domestic flights within Germany. Lufthansa has the densest route network.
Germany has an extensive network of long-distance and regional trains with frequent departures. They are fairly expensive, but deals are often available, especially if you book in advance. Germany’s rail system is operated almost entirely by Deutsche Bahn, whose website has detailed information in English and other languages, as well as a ticket-purchasing function. Flixtrain offers low-cost journeys on a handful of routes.
Tickets for Deutsche Bahn trains may be bought using a credit card up to 10 minutes before departure at no surcharge. You will need to present a printout of your ticket, as well as the credit card used to buy it, to the conductor. Smartphone users can register with Deutsche Bahn and download the ticket via the free DB Navigator app. Tickets are also available from vending machines and agents at the Reisezentrum (travel center) in train stations. The latter charge a service fee but are useful if you need assistance with planning your itinerary.
Tickets sold on board incur a surcharge and are not available on regional trains. Agents, conductors and machines usually accept debit cards and major credit cards. With few exceptions (station unstaffed, vending machine broken), you will be fined if caught without a ticket.
German roads are excellent and driving around the country can be a lot of fun. The country’s pride and joy is its 6800-mile (11,000km) network of autobahns (freeways). About every 30 miles, you’ll find elaborate service areas with gas stations, bathrooms and restaurants, and many are open 24 hours. In between are rest stops (Rastplatz), which usually have picnic tables and bathrooms. Autobahns are supplemented by an extensive network of Bundesstrassen (secondary "B" roads, highways) and smaller Landstrassen (country roads). No tolls are charged on public roads.
If your car is not equipped with a navigational system, having a good map or road atlas is essential, especially when negotiating the tangle of country roads. Navigating in Germany is not done by the points of the compass, meaning that you’ll find no signs saying "north" or "west." Rather, you’ll see signs pointing you in the direction of a city, so make sure you have a map.
Driving in German cities can be stressful because of congestion and the expense and scarcity of parking. In city centers, parking is usually limited to parking lots and garages charging up to €2.50 ($3) per hour. Some parking lots (Parkplatz) and parking garages (Parkhaus) close at night and charge an overnight fee. Many have special parking spaces for women that are especially well lit and close to exits.
Buses in Germany are cheaper and slower than trains, but the country's long-haul network is expanding. Regional bus services fill the gaps in areas not served by rail. Because the bus network has grown enormously in recent years, exploring Germany by bus has become easy, inexpensive and popular. Buses are modern, clean, comfortable and air-conditioned. Most bus companies offer snacks, beverages and free on-board wi-fi.
Fierce competition has kept prices extremely low. A trip from Berlin to Hamburg costs as little as €8 ($9.70), while the fare from Frankfurt to Munich averages €15 ($18.20). Flixbus and Eurolines are the biggest operators, but there are dozens of smaller, regional options as well. A handy site for finding out which operator goes where, when and for how much is Bus Radar.
Considering that Germany abuts two seas and its interior is filled with lakes and rivers, don’t be surprised to find yourself in a boat at some point. For basic transport, ferry boats are primarily used when traveling to or between the East Frisian Islands in Lower Saxony; the North Frisian Islands in Schleswig-Holstein; Helgoland, which also belongs to Schleswig-Holstein; and the islands of Poel, Rügen and Hiddensee in Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania.
Scheduled boat services operate along sections of the Rhine, the Elbe and the Danube rivers. There are also ferry services in river sections with no or only a few bridges, as well as on major lakes such as the Chiemsee and Lake Starnberg in Bavaria and Lake Constance in Baden-Württemberg.
Germans love to cycle, be it for errands, commuting, fitness or pleasure. Cycling is allowed on all roads and highways but not on the autobahns (freeways). Cyclists must follow the same rules of the road as cars and motorcycles. Helmets are not compulsory (not even for children), but wearing one is common sense. Dedicated bike lanes are common in bigger cities.
Germany's cities and larger towns have efficient public transport systems. Bigger cities, such as Berlin and Munich, integrate buses, trams, U-Bahn (underground, subway) trains and S-Bahn (suburban) trains into a single network. Fares are determined by zones or time traveled, sometimes by both. A multi-ticket strip or day pass generally offer better value than a single-ride ticket. Normally, tickets must be stamped upon boarding to be valid. Fines are levied if you’re caught without a valid ticket.
An inexpensive and sometimes eco-friendly way to get around in a private car in Germany is ride-sharing. It's not the Uber-style of ride sharing common elsewhere; instead, you travel as a passenger in a private car in exchange for some gas money. Most arrangements are set up via free online ride boards, such as BlaBlaCar and Mitfahren. You can advertise a ride yourself or link up with a driver going to your destination.
Taxis are expensive and, given the excellent public transport systems, not recommended unless you’re in a real hurry. Taxis can actually be slower than trains or trams if you’re stuck in traffic. Cabs are metered and charged at a base rate (flagfall) plus a per-kilometer fee. These charges are fixed but vary from city to city. Some drivers charge extra for bulky luggage or night-time rides. Smartphone owners can order a taxi via the Mytaxi app (downloadable for free via iTunes or Google Play) in more than 30 German cities.
Uber is not widely used in Germany after a court ruled in 2019 that it did not have the necessary licenses. While the case is taken to a higher court, Uber continues to operate in seven German cities – Berlin, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich and Stuttgart – but unlike in some other countries, Uber contracts with German taxi firms to provide its rides.
Accessible transportation in Germany
Germany is fairly progressive when it comes to barrier-free travel. Access ramps and elevators are available in many public buildings, including train stations, museums, concert halls and movie theaters. In historical towns, though, cobblestone streets make getting around difficult. Newer hotels have elevators and rooms with extra-wide doors and spacious bathrooms.
Trains, trams, underground subways and buses are increasingly accessible. Some stations also have grooved platform borders to assist blind passengers in navigating. Seeing-eye dogs are allowed on all forms of public transport. For the hearing impaired, upcoming station names are often displayed electronically on public transport.
Some car rental agencies offer hand-controlled vehicles and vans with wheelchair lifts at no charge, but you must reserve them well in advance. In parking lots and garages, look for designated spots marked with a wheelchair symbol.